Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Witch of Salem

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chit, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am also a huge fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and enjoy the long game experiences of Arkham Horror. Also, I am a huge fan and usually sport jeff caps and bitchin' sideburns, which the two male character illustrations have, so I am able to relate to their style.


The Overview:


The box is a pretty standard size. 




The contents of the German edition. It is the same with the English edition, though it does not include the short story. 


Witch of Salem is a cooperative game in which the players take the role of one of four occult scholars who are running around the city of Arkham working with Robert Craven, the Witch of Salem, to try to stop the evil Necron from opening a portal to bring in one of the Great Old Ones from R'lyeh to destroy Arkham and the world. In order to succeed, the players need to gather the mystical items and artifacts needed, discover what Great Old One is threatening to arrive, stave off the other horrible creatures who arrive in Arkham and hold onto their sanity all while trying to do this before the Necron summons the Great Old One.

The game is a cooperative game for 2-4 players and despite the description above, the game's theme is there, but is a lot more abstract and Euro-based (despite the randomness of a loss die) than it sounds.


The Theme:

Witch of Salem has a lot more theme in the background and set-up of the game than what really comes through in the actual gameplay. While Arkham Horror is a deeply thematic storytelling game with the Mythos being integral to the game, WoS uses the Mythos as the background, but the actual gameplay it could easily be broken down to matching symbols which ultimately mean little. This is not really a problem, per se, but it is a missed opportunity to really delve into the rich depths of the Mythos and have it own the game.



There is no difference between the characters. Still, I have a hard time choosing between David Foster's awesome hat or Tom Furlong's bitchin' sideburns. 


One place where the lack of theme translating fails a bit is with the characters. Each of them are generic and completely identical except for the color meeple they use. Again, that isn't necessarily a problem, but a missed opportunity. Why someone with Tom Furlong's sideburns seems strapping enough to be able to carry an extra item, while Jenny Baxter used to work at the Sanatorium and has an extra Sanatorium movement card in her deck, but David Foster had a horrible experience at the cemetery and loses a sanity whenever he goes there and Maggie Sterns refuses to go anywhere that there is an undead creature, unless the Witch of Salem is also there... These are just little ideas off the top of my head that could have been incorporated to make the characters more interesting and dynamic. Hell, maybe they could have at least added a character with sideburns AND a hat.



The German cards. The artwork is the same for the English version. In the upper right is the "Hexe", which is the "Red Witch" in the English version.


You also lose a bit of the theme when encountering the monsters. For example, the artwork on the monster card of the Red Witch is great and it has a little thematic description of her: "Her screaming and shrieking was bloodcurdling. There was little doubt that soon something terrible would happen." Wow. Between that artwork and description, it sounds like you would be in for a good fight. However, the actual resolution is that all you need to do is show up with two pairs of glasses and it is defeated. That is where the missed opportunity for theme is. You just collect the items to match the symbols to kill something. Kill a ghoul? Just show up with a dagger and a potion. A Zombie? A dagger and a book. You don't discard them, you just show up with them in your pack and you defeat them. Granted, you need to roll a die before that and can lose a random possession which might be one of those you need, but it still is not really thematic and just matching icons.

Also taking away from the theme is the rule that disallows you from sharing information that you uncover about portal locations in the game. Thematically it makes no sense in game since the characters are all working together and should be able to share information. It also does not make thematic sense out of the game since it is a cooperative game and there is no reason why players should be restricted from sharing information in a game in which either all the players win together or all lose together.


Learning the Game:

The rules are printed on four illustrated pages, and the first page is just background and an overview of the components. Game play is quick and easy to pick up. Most everything is easily grasped with the first play and little need to refer to the rules. Game play is intuitive and the reference cards with the game are good and answer all of the most common questions, eliminating much of the need to refer to the rules during game play.


The Components:


The four character meeples and the Witch of Salem along with the Necron time marker. 



The Loss Die; no stickers on this die. 



The components in this game are excellent and all have good and interesting artwork on them.

The map is functional and beautiful in its appearance. The cards all have interesting and excellent artwork on them and the markers are all solid and functional. They also have rather unique wooden meeples to represent the player's characters and another unique one to represent the Witch of Salem... who apparently wears a top hat and an opera cloak. But, hell, if I were a warlock in the early 20th century, I would probably sport that look myself if I couldn't grow sideburns or get a jeff cap.

Really, the game is beautiful and you can tell that the artwork was a labor of love with the game.


Playing the Game:

The game is abstract. Despite the gorgeous artwork and the heavy background story and the the rich Cthulhu Mythos, it really is just a lot of randomness and icon-matching. That may be a missed opportunity in my mind, but it is not necessarily a negative overall.

Each round begins with flipping an encounter card. Most of them are monster cards and if that monster card is not already out in play, then it is placed on the next available location clockwise from the Witch's current location. If you draw a monster card that is already in play, then you need to activate the bad effects on the card. Usually it is a matter or either moving the Necron time track forward and/or collectively discarding items.

Next, each player moves. The players move around the board using a deck of location cards. They have one card for each location on the board, plus a Secret Passage card. The Secret Passage costs one sanity to use, but you can move anywhere on the board with it, even to R'lyeah, where you need to go to banish the Great Old One. If you play your Miskatonic University card, you move back to the university and can collect all of your location cards again.

If there is another player at your destination, you can trade with them. After that, you encounter the creature at the location, if there is one there. That means you roll the encounter die and resolve it. It is a six-sided die with four sides showing one of the four types of items you will need to discard. One side shows a sanity icon which means you lose a sanity and the final side has the Necron icon on it, meaning you move the Necron time marker forward one space. If the Witch of Salem happens to be at the location, you do not have to roll the die. After the die is resolved, you then can attempt to defeat the creature at the location. As stated above, you need to just match the icons on the creature card with the items you have and it is defeated and discarded from the location.

Once that is done, you can use an item in your possession and then take an item at the location you are at. Depending on where it was placed, some of them have costs of sanity, moving the Necron marker, drawing and resolving a new creature card or drawing and resolving an event card. If you take the last item, three new ones come out.

Finally, after each player has taken their turn, an event card is drawn which usually moves the Witch of Salem figure to a new location and has either a beneficial or detrimental effect. Then the round ends and the next round begins with the same order.

To win, a player must seal all open portals at locations and banish the Great Old One in R'lyeh while another player seals the last opened portal at Miskatonic University. There are eight portal tokens, four of which are open portals and four of which are closed. The tokens are randomly shuffled and placed on the six locations with the last two tokens returned to the box. This means that there are 2-4 open portals out, but the players do not know how many there are. You need to be at a location and use and discard a set of glasses to peek under the tile to see if the location has an opened portal or not. If there is an opened portal, artifacts are among the items that can be found and the matching one must be used at that location. An issue with the game is that you are not supposed to share the information you uncover when you peek at the portal. As I stated above, it does not make sense and the game is hard enough that it does not suffer from communicating what you find. We've played with with open disclosure of what we find and it is still a difficult game. Our group has the understanding that if the game becomes too easy, we'll switch to trying no communication.

There are five Great Old Ones placed around the board face-down and one in R'lyeh. Players need to use and discard copies of the Necronomicon (book icons) to turn these over and reveal them. All of them need to be revealed before the Necron marker reaches a specific point on the track, otherwise the players lose.

Finally, a player needs to go into R'lyeh with the items matching the icons on the Great Old One's card to banish it. Then another player need to go to Miskatonic University and seal the last portal there. The final portal at Miskatonic University can be sealed with any artifact and you do not need to worry about matching the symbols on them.

If the players can do that, they win. However, there are many different ways the players can lose:

*If the Necron reaches the demon space on the track and all of the Great Old Ones are not revealed, they lose.
*If the Necron reaches the end of the track, the players lose.
*If a player reaches 0 sanity, he or she is out of the game. If there are fewer than 2 players left, there is no way to banish AND seal the Great Old Ones, so the players lose.
*If the players banish the Great Old One, but fail to seal one or more of the portal tokens at the locations, they lose.
*If the players banish the Great Old One, but seal a location that did not have a portal icon on its marker, they lose.

Overall, the randomness of the losses and card draws makes it a challenging game that throws a lot of curves at your strategy.


A game in progress on a brilliant and beautiful board. 


Scalability:

The game scales well from two to four players. In a two-player game, one Encounter (monster) card is drawn at the beginning of a round. In a three-player game, the players alternate and draw one Encounter card the first round and two Encounter cards the next round and back and forth. And in a four-player game, two Encounter cards are drawn at the beginning of each round. This does adjust the challenge of the game appropriately.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. My wife is a huge fan of Arkham Horror and the Cthulhu Mythos as well and so this was a relatively easy sell to get past her initial reluctance in learning new games. The idea behind the theme won her over and got her to try it with less reluctance than most games, but the simple, but challenging cooperative gameplay kept her interested. She is a fan of cooperative games and this one seems to fit a little niche. She also has a tendency to want to play coop games again and again until we win, and this is a difficult game to beat. This meant we got a lot of plays in until we finally got our first win against it.


The Pros:

*Beautiful artwork and components and a gorgeous board.
*Very challenging cooperative gameplay.
*Excellent scalability between player numbers.
*Solid gameplay.
*Good play time, especially since a two-player game usually comes in under one hour.
*Difficult, but not brain-burning.
*It has a rich game background in the Cthulhu Mythos.


The Cons:

*Many missed opportunities to bring the theme into the game, especially with a theme with so much potential as the Cthulhu Mythos.
*Randomness will turn off some players.
*The game really breaks down to matching icons and rolling a die to see what icons you lose. The theme's potential and the players working to get into the theme really are the only things from uncovering the pasted on theme and it being a completely abstract game.
*The cooperative play rule where you cannot share portal information is unthematic for both characters in the game and for players at a cooperative game. Despite the sore thumb that it creates when it sticks out in the ruleset, it is very easy to just ignore that rule. Only rules sticklers will be affected that much by it.


Overall:

Witch of Salem is a good, solid cooperative game that misses a lot of opportunities in building more theme into it and pulling it from its icons and abstract heart. There is a lot of potential that was missed in the theme, but I don't want that to affect my opinion that it is still a solid, decent game. It seems to be the bastard child of Arkham Horror and Ghost Stories. It is a smaller version of both of these. It has a smaller, less full grasp of the Cthulhu Mythos and immersiveness of Arkham Horror and its play feels closer to Ghost Stories, but it does not feel as heavy and unforgiving as that game. I don't feel as immersed as I would with AH, but my brain doesn't burn as much as when I play GS. Witch of Salem may be unforgiving, but it doesn't burn your brain nearly as much as other games. Overall, it is a solid game, but it does miss a lot of potential.


6/10